Parabens are preservatives that prevent bacteria from growing in skincare, makeup, and personal care products. The most common kinds are butylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben. As a pharmacist, I have avoided using parabens in the products I develop because of the potential cancer risk.
The estrogen-cancer connection
Estrogen is a naturally occurring hormone that helps our sexual development and functioning of our organs. It helps cell division and growth of breast cells – and unfortunately, does the same for cancerous cells and tumors. While high estrogen levels can’t singularly cause cancer, it can increase risk or speed up the disease’s progression.
Parabens and estrogens
Researchers discovered that parabens are xenoestrogens: they have a similar chemical structure that fits into our body’s estrogen receptor the way a key fits into a lock. While parabens are considered “weak” xenoestrogens, like all synthetic compounds the body has trouble breaking them down, so they can accumulate in our tissues over years of exposure. In 2004, Philippa Darbre – a noted oncologist and scientist – released a landmark study that detected parabens in 18 out of 20 breast tumour biopsies. Critics said that was not enough to establish a paraben-cancer connection, but Darbre has argued that studies on estrogen, and well-documented research on paraben’s ability to mimic estrogen, are enough for consumers to be cautious.
Darbre’s study sparked a decade-long debate, with many countries recommending limits on paraben levels in cosmetics, and further research on the cumulative effect of parabens over years of use. However, many companies are voluntarily removing parabens from their products in response to consumer concern. Parabens may not be conclusively dangerous, but many are not willing to wait until science provides irrefutable proof.
Weighing the risk
The quantity of parabens in a single bottle of lipstick or lotion cannot, in and of itself, be considered a cancer risk. Cancer is a complex disease that can be triggered by many factors – genetics, diet, lifestyle, and exposure to many other environmental hazards. It would be irresponsible to say, “This product causes cancer!”
However, I do believe that every little bit helps. We use skincare products every day, and in the case of lotions, liberally apply them all over our body. I have personally decided to avoid parabens and look for natural, safer ingredients such as grapefruit extract and a form of benzoic acid that has been extracted from plants.
There is no harm in playing on the safe side, especially when we are exposed to many other environmental and chemical hazards: sun exposure, pollution, and chemicals in our food.
The choice, however, is up to you. If cancer runs in your family, or if you are particularly concerned by the possible side effects of parabens, then read the label of your skincare products. If you feel that the risk is minimal, then at least you know how parabens work and what the “beauty buzz” was all about.
It is always important to understand what you put in your skin. If you have any questions about skincare ingredients, feel free to leave a question in your comments below and I will be happy to do my best to answer them!
Mei Hui - Managing Director/Pharmacist